Along the Banks of the Volga River

Along the Banks of the Volga River

Masterpieces of the Russian photography of the second half of the 19th century
in the collection of the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg.

The Volga, one of the greatest rivers on the planet, is a beloved symbol of Russia. From time immemorial, there had been many songs and verses dedicated to this "Mother River" or "Mother Volga". It has always represented the vast spaces of the country. The image of the river is inseparably linked with the notions of liberty, freedom and daring. It was from the town of Tver and down the Volga that Afanasy Nikitin, a merchant and a valiant traveler and discoverer of unknown lands, set off for India in the middle of the 15th century. It was here that Stepan Razin and Yemelyan Pugachyov led the major Cossack and peasant uprisings in the Russian history. It was in the Volga town of Nizhny Novgorod where, in 1611, the merchant Kuzma Minin together with Prince Dmitry Pozharsky organized volunteer corps and united the whole nation against the Polish invaders.

The Volga originates from a small spring in the forests of the Valdai Hills, not far from the town of Tver, in the very heart of Russia. This spring gives birth to a great water way which is 3690 kilometers long and many centuries old. The Volga flows into the enormous Caspian Sea, and its three hundred tributaries nourish spacious fertile lands.

The Khazars, Mongols and Slavs had inhabited the lands on either side of this magnificent river. Until now, the Russian and Tatars, Mordvins and Bashkirs, Chuvash and Mari people, as well as representatives of other nationalities, cultures and religions live peacefully together on the banks of the Volga.

Since ancient times, there have been churches and monasteries on the steep banks of the river. Their golden domes served as glowing beacons for travelers. The monasteries often provided shelter for common people, and turned into unassailable fortresses for invaders. Towns of the Volga are remarkable for their architectural ensembles. By tradition, the towns along the right bank of the Volga were given male names - Yaroslavl, Nizhny Novgorod, Simbirsk, and those along the left bank had female names, like Kostroma, Kazan, Astrakhan.

In the 19th century, the industry of the Volga region began to develop very fast. The bread was the reason. Its production demanded processing machines, transportation vessels, shipyards and bridges, factories and plants, which attracted many traders, manufacturers and capitalists. One of the major events that took place in the region was Nizhny Novgorod Fair. It became nationally famous for selling bread, handicrafts and numerous gifts of the Volga nature. During the Fair, there were popular performances; famous theatres and opera houses from Moscow and other big cities presented their plays; musical and choral concerts were organized; photographers from all over the country came to town.

The Volga has always been a source of inspiration for Russian writers and poets: Pavel Melnikov known under the pen-name of Andrey Pechersky, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Alexander Ostrovsky, Nikolay Nekrasov and many others. It is impossible not to mention the world-famous writer Maxim Gorky who came from Nizhny Novgorod himself, and vividly described the life of the Volga people in his books.

The landscapes of the river are depicted on canvases of many well-known artists. Such for example, in 1838, the Chernetsov brothers, Grigory and Nikanor, painted a panorama of both sides of the Volga during their voyage along the river. In the latter half of the 19th century, the Volga, the towns and villages of the region were represented in the landscapes of such famous artists as Isaac Levitan, Ivan Shishkin, Boris Kustidiyev; in 1870 - 1873, Ilya Repin created his outstanding painting Burlaks on the Volga (The Volga Barge Haulers) that played an important role in the development of the national realistic school. The tradition of fresco and icon-painting is very old and carefully kept in the Volga region.

The great river was also glorified by the genius bass singer Feodor Chaliapin who also was born in the Volga region. His best-known song Dubinushka (The Song of the Volga Boatmen) was dedicated to the cruel fate of the Volga burlaks (barge haulers).

ELENA BARKHOTOVA, Candidate of Science in Art History
Head of the Prints Department
at the National Library of Russia
in Saint Petersburg